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Don't be too hard on Kant

Reader comment on item: Immanuel Kant vs. Israel
in response to reader comment: Immanuel Kant vs. Israel

Submitted by Peter Herz (United States), Dec 18, 2010 at 22:02

Morry, don't be too hard on Kant. He also gave us the idea in _Perpetual Peace_ that a collection of free republics would be more pacific than a collection of monarchies; and wiser political scientists than I think there may be something to this. It's called the "Democratic Peace" hypothesis, and, while I am a skeptic about it, I would like it to be true. It was one of the motivations--far more than control of oil--that prompted Bush's ill-conceived adventure in Iraq.

But, where is morality to come from? In the 1930's. the Vienna Circle tried hard to ground all thought, including ethics, in scientific rationality and empiricism. Yet in 1938, as Hitler's Jackbooted minions marched into Vienna, Friedrich Waismann wailed that there was no clear path from the empirical "is" to the ethical "ought"; and I'm not sure he's been answered. Worse, he wailed for the re-appearance of the "Socratic Man" to criticize the demons of his age; yet Socrates, when challenged by one Callicles that the tyrant is the happiest of men (in _Gorgias_, where they discuss the meaning of justice), falls back on a judgment after death. This, plus Socrates' questioning of the Greek gods, led a string of Christian thinkers from the Greek church fathers to Huldrych Zwingli to wonder if Socrates hadn't drunk from Hebrew wells.

We derive our ethics from various dogmatic traditions, and perhaps the question to ask is which one provides the best.

And, perhaps, part of the problem is that the disciples of Kant don't take a long and hard enough look at the people they purport to defend in the name of a universal moral imperative.

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